Relationships all have their share of trying times. It’s unrealistic that a relationship will always be happy and smooth. Even the best of relationships experience rough patches. But how we respond to these difficult moments is what determines the direction a relationship will take from there.
When relationships go through instability, we are more vulnerable to subconsciously turning away from the relationship. This can happen in different ways. Some may end up focusing on work, or channeling attention into other activities, being with friends more often, and so on. But when a person is feeling neglected, resentful, or rejected by their partner, it can be tempting to start noticing other people who provide the type of craved attention that isn’t happening in the relationship. If we are not aware when we get caught up in this type of craved validation with an outside person, it can end up leading to emotional and behavioral (sexual) infidelity.
When people cheat on their partners, it’s a form of emotional acting out. It’s an indication that their feelings of oppression (whether perceived or actual), neglect (or abuse), rejection, or resentment overwhelm the ability to make balanced decisions. When feeling oppressed, we may look to regain a sense of emotional and physical freedom. The oppressed emotion may not always be triggered by the partner — for some it’s merely feeling tied down by a relationship that triggers feelings of oppression. The mindset becomes something akin to, “It’s my turn, I need something for myself. I’m not getting it at home, so I can do it here.” This can turn into a one-night stand, a series of one-night stands, or longer-term emotional and sexual affairs.
When making the decision to cheat, it’s common that people compartmentalize it. The mind wants to put the incident in a box as something that’s done “outside” of the relationship, in its own private cubby hole that no one will know about. However, it’s rare for cheating to be so simple. This kind of mindset is similar to feeling that we’re invisible if we close our eyes.
One of the beautiful elements of being in a relationship is that both people become aware over time of each others’ tendencies, idiosyncrasies, and other qualities that makes the person unique. This includes becoming accustomed to each others’ routines and patterns of emotion. Therefore, when we do something out of the ordinary, it creates an emotional disruption that can be quite visible to our partners, even if we are able to internally compartmentalize it.
Basically, if we’re going to cheat, it’s likely we’ll end up getting caught at some point. I’ve seen couples where a person cheated one time, and ended up being caught anywhere from right away to many years later (there are countless ways that people get caught cheating).
As a therapist, I have rarely seen a person get away with cheating for long. And those who have (so far), harbor guilt and regret more than they feel good about getting away with it.
When our relationships start to derail and we feel ourselves turning away from our partners, we need to become aware if we are seeking validation through others. If we don’t, we can end up making a decision that we may regret.
Here are a few tips to help make balanced decisions when we find ourselves in this situation:
1) Think of how your partner would feel. Assume your partner will absolutely find out. Imagine how your partner will react.
2) Think of consequences. What will happen to your current relationship? What other areas of your life will be impacted if you’re caught, or even if you get away with it?
3) Identify what the “other person” is bringing to you that your partner isn’t. If you’re turning toward a person outside of your relationship, there’s a reason for this, whether they make you feel good, sexy, smart, admired, and so on. Figure out what this is for you.
4) Talk to your partner. Communicate what you feel you’re missing in the relationship. People tend to wait until boiling over before having these important discussions. For some, cheating feels less risky than direct communication, and some also use cheating as a way to get out of a relationship. But if you feel unhappy with your relationship, communication will be necessary if you want improvement (or if you want to end your relationship).
5) Personal or couples counseling. Couples counseling can help re-orient your relationship by identifying where things are going wrong, help with communication, and get your relationship on the right track again. Personal counseling can help sort out the urges, temptations, and emotions we’re struggling with.
Ideally, before making a decision that we may regret or that may come back to haunt us, we want to be able to make a thought-out decision and use our best judgment. It may not always be easy, but the hope is that we can understand the consequences of our actions before we do behaviors that cause regret, guilt, and hurt to ourselves and our partners.
Work romance photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 5 Sep 2012